It was the longest night of the year, when the strangest of things happened…
In an ancient inn on the Thames, the regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open and in steps and injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a child.
Hours later, the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.
Is it a miracle? Is it magic?
And who does the little girl belong to?
Before I get into the body of this review, can we just take a moment to appreciate the GORGEOUS cover for Once Upon A River? I mean seriously, just LOOK at it! The beautiful illustration (by artist Sarah Whittaker) is even prettier on the physical paperback, with the orange and green really standing out against the black background. I was lucky enough to get an e-proof of this novel from Netgalley UK but I’ve still been out and bought a copy of this – it’s just one of those books that, for me, just begs to be read in physical format.
Right, now that the important matter of showing the cover some love is out of the way, I’ll get on with raving about the book itself. Because I absolutely ADORED Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon A River, a magical and moving novel about family, folklore and the power of stories. Definitely an early contender for the books of the year list!
I’ve loved Diane’s writing ever since picking up her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, on a whim some years ago. It was a genre-crossing tale that took a family drama and imbued it with a healthy dose of the Gothic, a dash of mystery, and more than a little tragedy. The result was a spellbindingly gripping tale. Once Upon a River, her third (and latest) novel, has the spellbinding quality of The Thirteenth Tale but the book itself is a very different beast. Where her debut was darkly sinister, Once Upon a River, whilst touching on some dark and difficult subject matter, is filled to brimming with warmth and comfort.
Opening in The Swan at Radcot, an inn on the River Thames famed for its storytelling, the novel follows the aftermath of one winter’s night when a injured man and an apparently drowned child arrive at the inn. When it becomes apparent that the little girl is not only alive but also not the child of the man who bought her to the inn, the question of who she belongs to becomes paramount. Mr and Mrs Vaughan, a wealthy couple whose young daughter was kidnapped some years before, believe the girl to be their beloved Amelia. Robin Armstrong, a young man with both tragedy and secrets in his past, claims she is his bonny Alice. And Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper, is convinced that the child is her missing sister Ann. As Henry Daunt, the photographer who bought the child to the inn, and Rita Sunday, the nurse who tended to her, attempt to find who the child really belongs to, the stories of all involved start to twist and turn like the river itself, merging together like tributaries before being carried forwards in the rising tide.
This is a multi-layered novel brimming with characters but meticulous crafting of the tale meant that I never became confused as to who was who or which strand of the story I was following. The opening, although full of drama, is slow to develop as Setterfield takes time to introduce her cast and set her scene. The pay off is a a set of characters that, over the course of the story, become as familiar as friends (or, in the case of a couple of them, old and bitter enemies) and whose trials and tribulations left me racing to the end, desperate to know if the good got their rewards and if the bad faced the justice they deserved.
Filled to brimming with folklore, this is novel that revels in the art of storytelling, weaving stories within stories and ensuring every strand of the tale has real emotional resonance. As well as providing a thickly characterised narrative, Setterfield’s prose is filled with lush descriptions of the river. Victorian Oxford and the surrounding villages lived and breathed on the page and, in her evocative descriptions of the churning water, I could easily imagine myself sat on the deck of Collodion with Henry Daunt, or tying up a punt at the jetty belonging to Buscot Lodge.
Richly atmospheric and with more than a hint of magic, Once Upon a River is the perfect tale to curl up with on a cold winter’s night. As I said at the start of this review, the novel is filled with heart and warmth, and the extremely satisfying ending left me with all the warm fuzzies. A bewitching tale, dazzlingly told, this is a real treat of a book that is perfect for curling up with and devouring over a weekend – a real cure for those January blues!
Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield is published by Transworld (Black Swan) and is available in paperback and ebook now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.
My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.